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Saints Nation: What Will Be the Starting Unit at Linebacker for the Saints in 2012?

The Saints will quite possibly enter 2012 with a brand new set of starting linebackers, but the competition in training camp promises to be fierce. As things stand, the veteran linebackers on the Saints’ roster include David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton, Scott Shanle, Will Herring, Jonathan Casillas and Chris Chamberlain. I’m not including Jonathan Vilma who will likely be suspended the entire season, nor Martez Wilson who was moved to defensive end, nor Nate Bussey who is probably still in the mix to make the roster based on his prowess on special teams.

So who are the starters of this group?

Lofton is a 100% lock if healthy at middle linebacker. Period, end of story. David Hawthorne is an attractive player the Saints just landed in free agency that’s capable of playing in the middle, but he’s a virtual certainty to start as an outside backer assuming nothing happens to Lofton. If Lofton was out, Hawthorne would likely move to the middle. But I think it’s a very safe assumption the two highly paid for newcomers will be lined up next to each other on opening day.

That leaves one starting spot for Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Will Herring and Chris Chamberlain to battle for. Shanle always seems to handle any competition thrown his way and maintain his starter spot every year, and perhaps this year won’t be any different. Still, there’s a lot of compelling cases for these four to start. Shanle is certainly the most experienced and trusted of the four – he’s a known quantity, he’s reliable and the Saints know what they will get from him. Casillas is by far the most athletic and has the highest ceiling, but injuries have severely stunted his improvement. Will Herring could see time even if he doesn’t start because he’s the best of the bunch in coverage. Chamberlain will make the team thanks to special teams ability at the very least, but he’s a guy that Steve Spagnuolo loves from his time in St. Louis and you have to figure he’s the teacher’s pet of the bunch. So you’ve got one guy on the wrong side of 30 that’s proven, one guy that is the most athletic but most unproven, one guy that covers well, and one that the new defensive coordinator feels most comfortable with. That’s quite a dichotomy when you think about it and I could truly see the Saints going any of four different ways with their third starter. I think this battle for the 3rd starting linebacker spot will be one of the most compelling of training camp.

Who do you think starts opening day alongside Hawthorne and Lofton? Shanle, Casillas, Herring or Chamberlain?